The digital transformation of the labor market is no longer confined to the tech sector. As research from Emsi Burning Glass indicates, digital skills are now table stakes across a range of occupations and industries. Whether you’re an operations manager for a clothing retailer or a marketer at a manufacturing company, you’ll need digital skills — from programming to data analysis to PowerPoint — to succeed in today’s world of work.
Front-line workers have not been spared from the impacts of digital transformation either. Consider the medical assistant whose job now entails entering data into electronic health records, or the pharmacy technician managing prescriptions through a computer program designed specifically for that purpose. Simply put, every job at every level requires digital savviness and engagement. What does that mean for workers and talent leaders trying to navigate this changing landscape?
For years, predictions and analyses about the increasingly digital world of work have been accompanied by fears around automation. A dominant narrative in the world of workforce development has been the idea that the robots are coming for our jobs. But as employers and workers alike are starting to learn, the reality is much more nuanced.
The more sophisticated technology becomes, the clearer it is that automation isn’t replacing jobs so much as it is transforming them. One recent survey of manufacturers found that a majority believe robots and other technologies will support and augment their workforce, rather than ousting them entirely. That means that rather than preparing for jobs to be eliminated by automation, business leaders must expect those jobs to change — and prepare accordingly.
At Penn Foster, where the majority of our training programs focused on middle-skill roles — those that require some training beyond high school but not a four-year degree — we’ve seen this shift play out in real time. Today’s HVAC technicians have much more technology at their disposal than they did two decades ago, but the technology isn’t taking their place. Instead, it’s providing them with new diagnostic tools to do their jobs more effectively. The same is true for X-ray imaging. A wealth of programs can collect, analyze and categorize X-ray data — but even the best of those programs can’t make the right decision about what to do with the information they collect.
In short, a growing number of front-line and middle-skill roles require humans to engage with technology, and to interpret the information that new technological tools provide them. These jobs aren’t at risk of being automated out. But that doesn’t mean that the same old approaches to training and development will work either.
The rise of technology across all levels of the enterprise means that job profiles are changing. In some cases, the pace of change is faster than a traditional education system can keep up. How should learning and development (L&D) leaders help their workforce anticipate those changes? Our experience working with some of the country’s largest employers of middle-skill workers may offer some insight.
First, it’s important to remember that digital skills won’t amount to much if they aren’t accompanied by foundational skills. Regardless of the technical requirements of the job, all front-line workers should have access to training in the fundamental skills that they’ll carry throughout their careers. Those include both soft skills, like teamwork and collaboration, as well as comfort with writing and basic math. Some digital skills, like Microsoft Office, have become part of this suite of foundational skills as well. Digital skills aren’t going to stop evolving any time soon. The goal of any L&D leader isn’t just to keep up with that pace — it’s also to ensure that your workforce has the strong foundation to adapt as the needs of their jobs continue to change.
Our work with employers always begins with that baseline of skills: helping ensure that front-line workers have mastered time management and are comfortable working with colleagues even in high-pressure situations. Once the foundation has been established, it’s much more effective to layer on more technical skills. That process must include helping people apply what they’ve learned in specific contexts.
As just one example, consider the changing role of electricians in a world that is increasingly focused on renewable energy. With the demand for front-line jobs, like solar panel installer, expected to increase dramatically over the coming years, electricians must prepare to apply their existing skills in a new and rapidly changing industry. That means layering a new set of skills related to solar photovoltaic installation on top of an existing set of skills and experience as an electrician. Doing so successfully takes a willingness to learn, experiment, and adapt — which are themselves part of the foundational skill sets that all workers need.
In dynamic and fast-changing environments like today’s world of work, talent leaders have two options: scramble to keep up, or help employees take ownership over their own continuous learning and growth. It’s easy to determine which of those approaches is better in the long run. And by focusing on foundational skills, and then scaffolding technical skills over time, businesses can prepare their front-line and middle-skilled workforce for the future — no matter how different their job might look next year than it does today.